Spiegeltent, London Wonderground; 4th June 2015
Tonight there is a party. An impromptu, informal, flowing all-night kind of affair. Down on the docks; in the back of a warehouse. Home-brewed jazz and distilled circus spectacle slide like liquor through the veins of Scotch & Soda.
This is a collaboration between David Carberry and Chelsea McGuffin’s Company 2 and the Crusty Suitcase Band (led by composer and innovator Ben Walsh). The five musicians and five acrobats share the revisioned world of an early 20th Century Australian itinerant working class as fully as they share the intimate stage space within the Spiegeltent. A space where commies and carnies blend into a characterful cocktail of ease and seemingly laid-back expertise.
The performers begin to congregate inside the tent at the same pace as the rings of seats fill. Skip Walker-Milne takes our picture from an old box camera he claims to have made himself (to appear later on the #scotchandsodashow Instagram tag); Mozes, as ‘The Bush Stranger’ sticks his face in mine, hunting for ‘Margaret’; posters are circulated with ‘Missing’ and ‘Wanted’ ads that continue to sink us into the period, created from histories of Australian circus folk and personalities of the old Outback. The Crusty Suitcase brand of brass, strings and junk-percussion ‘gyp-hop’ start to infuse the air.
What begins as a rehearsal jam amongst the musicians, lounging around the hefty wooden table in the centre of the small ring stage, quickly devolves into a sequence of high-spirited party tricks. The splendid choreography and well-acted performance allows us to believe that this could be a spur-of-the-moment booze-lubricated shedding of inhibitions – although the hand-to-hand moves, equilibristics and manipulations are of such a standard that we know this can only be a clever illusion.
The continual movement around the space, and flow of performers, leads us through all the stages of a social gathering. Old friends reunite in a duo of static trapeze from McGuffin and Mozes, full of witty, sophisticated skill exhibited with athletic control; as night grows on, lights dim and the musicians circle around on old packing crates and suitcases to accompany Kate Muntz’s atmospheric corde lisse, slow with treacle heat and the soporific effects of the eponymous Scotch, but with moves clean and concentrated, no soda to dilute them; in the kitchen a game of cards between Carberry and Walker-Milne becomes a one-upmanship of hand-balancing; the hazy woozy sounds of Walsh on a home-made instrument, whose origins lie somewhere between the dulcimer and the junkyard, shifts the energy again as the party hits the wee hours.
This production stands-out in its ability to surprise and impress through the variety and innovation in its adaptations and experiments with technique, none of which ever seems incongruous to the world the cast have created. With no director credited in the programme, I assume that this has been a company led process, which makes its detail and drive even more impressive.
McGuffin mothers a pair of cheeky budgerigars inside a gauzy cage (ironically enough, given a recent Udderbelly statement!); a trick-cycle routine builds from Carberry and double-bass playing Eden Ottignon alone centre stage, to incorporate the entire company; Mozes takes to the static trapeze in his eccentric old Bush Stranger clown guise to perform a solo of comic and technical genius, accompanied by ominous organic sounds from the band (whoever created this act deserves a circus medal!).
Even for a seasoned circus vet, there are plenty of extreme gasp moments and risk fuelled delights. The 80 minute journey we’re taken on is one of camaraderie, acceptance and humour. While I may not feel the emotions of the brawling couple (McGuffin and Carberry), whose tango-infused hand-to-hand packs a resounding wallop, I recognise the spirit of drink and hot summer nights that has led them to this place.
As the evening goes on, the sense of abandon grows wilder. Walker-Milne and Carberry toss about an untethered Chinese pole, scrambling up and down in ever-more ambitious feats in keeping with the playful sibling rivalry established earlier, until the pole becomes an untethered shoulder-perch for Walker-Milne to shin up and down whilst Carberry supports from beneath.
Morning is rolling round, and Ottignon is scrubbed and dressed in an old tin tub. Neither is this the only bare male flesh we’ve seen this evening, as the easy vibe of letting it all hang loose seems to have been taken literally by the Bush Stranger several times!
The finale of a tiny hand-built teeterboard allows all the acrobats to sail around the stage, as they interchange roles and rotate the kit. Watching its two-by-four built wooden base dance and jiggle off the ground gives me the jitters, but in the characters’ alcohol-fueled exuberance all risk is apparently forgotten, creating the contrast between danger and carelessness that gives this show its edge throughout.
Scotch & Soda is stunningly original in its choreography of classical circus technique, which spills from character and situation with an impressive pace and range. The onstage personas retain enough mystery to make them alluring but, in doing so, show us so much humanity that we can all relate to the bonds forged and witnessed here tonight.